I’ve been thinking lately about reader trust. Broadly, as a writer, you have an obligation to hook a reader in your opening paragraphs and give them faith that you can deliver a good story. Seems obvious. But recently I’ve been thinking there are mitigating aspects to this.
While I was at MileHiCon a couple months ago, I did a reading: a thirty-minute session, mashed against another writer’s thirty-minute session. A nice group of people showed up and I decided to take them for a spin through my new novelette, “Pump Six.”
Okay, first a digression about readings: If you ever do a reading, make sure that you’ve practiced with your material. You’d think after writing and rewriting something fifteen zillion times, you’d be familiar with the material… but it just ain’t so. A reading is a performance, and that means the words bumbling out of your mouth are the only thing listeners can cling to. They can’t return to an earlier paragraph; they can’t slow down and pace themselves through your densely packed prose. If you aren’t grounded in the spoken rhythms and flow of the story, your listeners won’t have anything to hang onto. And it’s even harder because you haven’t necessarily written a story designed for live performance, so your audience will need a lot help, and you give it to them by knowing the direction of the piece, knowing where the emphasis and flow of the sentences is going, and by taking your time as you move through the story. It seems obvious, but…
I pretty much fucked it up. The last time I read the piece out loud, I had prepared ahead of time and it went very smoothly, so I just thought I’d skip the prep, and so I showed up just in time to do the reading. I ended up reading a little too fast. And I was a little too nervous And then I hit some reading snags and stuttered and had to reread a couple lines, and then it started really going downhill…
Note to self: Spend thirty minutes before a reading to get prepped and settled in your story before you go inflict it on others. Everyone will appreciate it.
But beyond flubbing my lines, (finally returning from the digression here) there was something else going on. As I read the opening paragraphs, I realized the story has a fascinating and previously unnoticed aspect (I say fascinating now, because I’m on the far side of the event, but at the time it was deeply unnerving, and contributed to my nervous and increasingly embarrassed speed-reading).
The story starts with an absurd, almost cartoonish domestic scene between a husband and wife. The characters behave in bizarre, nonsensical ways, particularly the wife, and as I read, I realized that if people read the scene straight, the only reasonable conclusion is that not only am I an amateur writer, because the characters are so clearly stereotypes, but also that I am a complete misogynist, because the wife comes across as alternately slutty, hysterical, and deeply stupid. Between the prose rhythms and the characterizations, the story has a lot of red flags.
If I am a reasonably intelligent reader (or listener, in the case of the reading, where I’m blurting out the escalating slapstick idiocies of the piece), I know — absolutely know — that Paolo Bacigalupi is both an amateur, and a misogynist. “Pump Six” is not literature but hack work; it’s the sort of stuff that teen boys write and try to pawn off as “creative writing.”
So I’m doing this reading, thinking about this, and stumbling over the performance of the piece at the same time, and the thing I’m feeling is overwhelming embarrassment. I’m thinking, “Wait, please, give me some more rope. I’ve got more story to tell. This is all going to make sense. I’m doing this stupid shit deliberately, and if we get far enough in, you’re going to see how it all fits together.” So half my mind is on the dynamics of the piece, half on the reading, and it’s getting worse and worse.
If this was my first short story ever and I was submitting it to F&SF, I’d probably be dead in the slush pile with “Pump Six.” John Joseph Adams, aka Slush God would pick up this stinking pile of crap, read the first few paragraphs and think, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And the next thing you know, I’d be getting an “Alas” letter from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Which finally brings me to my topic: Loans from the Bank of Reader Trust.
For a writer (as in many things) there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. And I think it has a lot to do with how big a loan of trust we can get (or think we can get) from readers. We’re all aware of writers who do really good work early in their career, get noticed, and start making money. But once their books sell like crack in a kindergarten, their work suddenly starts to suck– and yet it doesn’t hurt their sales. They sit on the bestseller lists and live off the fat of their earlier labors and write crap. Basically, they’ve got an unlimited line of credit from the Reader Trust Banking Corporation, and they’re living it up. Sometimes readers will call in the notes, but mostly, the author’s name seems to be enough to secure another loan.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the slush pile. Just the fact that you’re in the slush pile means that you’ve got no credit. Harsh, but true; if you had a little credit from Reader Trust Banking Corporation, you’d be getting rejected directly by Gordon, instead of John Joseph Adams, right? So, you’ve got no credit, no one will give you a loan except your mom, and the burden on you to nail everything perfectly — in your first paragraph, your second paragraph, in every paragraph — is enormous. It’s a job interview. If you come in off the street with a booger in your nose, game over. So, with your story, you start earning your credit, paragraph by paragraph. You grab the reader, you blow them away with awesome prose, intriguing premise and fascinating characters, and then you never let up, all the way to the end.
And that’s interesting, because that also means that you can only write certain kinds of stories initially. You don’t have as much elbow room to romp around.
At this point in my writing career, I’ve got a little more rope to hang myself with. Editors still sometimes reject my stories but these days I can try something risky and still have a hope that they’ll finish reading the piece, instead of slushing me immediately. That’s a luxury. So at the editorial level, I have a certain amount of reader trust because I’ve written interesting things in the past. It works similarly with readers, I think. Maybe I get a certain amount of trust because a story is being published in a respectable venue. In the case of a reading, some trust will be available to me depending on how well I actually read and perform the piece in question (oops, screwed that up). And of course, a reader who knows my previous work might be willing to give me a little more rope, because they’re thinking, “Bacigalupi writes other good stuff… What’s he up to this time?” Any of these things might keep them going, despite what’s happening in the text. For me, I had an experience like this when I was reading “Civil War Land in Bad Decline” by George Saunders. As I started the piece, I had some misgivings about his technique, but I let them go because someone I respect had given me the book. Which was good, because, hey, what do you know, Saunders is a pretty fine writer. But it was outside factors that kept me going. In the beginning, it wasn’t his prose. I let him take out a loan of trust based on factors that had little to do with his writing.
And so I return to “Pump Six.” In the beginning, I’m actively withholding information from my readers for a later series of reveals. The story doesn’t have awesome prose, because the narrating character himself has a limited range of expression. The narrating character and his wife go through a cartoonishly absurd argument, over a cartoonishly absurd topic, and neither of them comes across as either particularly likeable, or engaging. Worse yet, (major red flag) the wife comes across as relentlessly stupid, and it’s hard to tell from the text if I (as the author) am winking at the reader and saying “don’t take this too seriously” or if I’m just a flat-out misogynist because I’ve written the scene dead straight, no nods or winks coming from me at all.
So now the question comes: Do you trust me?
This is your first taste of “Pump Six”: sexism and cartoonish characters. It’s like Choose your own Adventure books. What will you do now? As the author, I’m trotting over to the Bank of Reader Trust and trying to get you to co-sign for a loan. A fat one. And I want to use it all to keep you reading. I like this story. I think it pays back the loan it asks for, but then, I wouldn’t have written the story if I didn’t.
As I was doing my MileHiCon reading, all of this sort of washed over me: the realization of how much trust I was asking for, the strange situations I was asking my readers to accept, and it scared the hell out of me. Looking back on it now, I feel better. It is a risky opening, there’s no doubt about. But for this story to take the shape it does, it’s also necessary. I wouldn’t change a word. Even if it does shove some people away.
Regardless of whether people think “Pump Six” is brilliant or crap you can bet that I’ll be prepping a little more before my next reading. Now that I know that I’m asking for that fat loan, I’m not going to apologize or feel embarrassed about it; I’m going to do everything I can to convince you to give it to me. :-)